The History of the Surfboard

Longboard surfer, 2010 Mavericks competition.

 Shalom Jacobovitz/Wikimedia Commons

Reflecting upon the history of the surfboard, it seems that there have been many incremental progressions in its development, but only a few fundamental changes since the days of the 100-pound wooden behemoths ridden by surfers in the “golden age” of the sport.

The First Surfboards

Although there has been some debate as to the true birthplace of the surfboard as there is documentation in surfboard history of Peruvian fishermen riding waves on primitive boats as far back as 3000BC, the surfboard concept as we know it was developed in Hawaii. As early as 1777, explorer Capt. James Cook recorded in his journals the sight of native Hawaiians streaming across waves on giant wooden boards. As “civilization” settled in the islands, surfboards didn’t change much. The first Alaia and Olo surfboards were made of solid wood, which made them extremely heavy. They were flat with a square tail. Surfboards were constructed using the native wood of the area. The heavyweight made boards unwieldy for anyone but the strongest and most athletic riders.

Tom Blake and the Hollow Surfboard

This general approach to surfboard construction was the norm up to 1926 when the solid construction was replaced by hollow construction which freed up crucial weight and helped increase performance to a degree. This first big step was made by Tom Blake, an innovator, and Waterman, who designed the first hollow surfboards using waterproof glue and plywood frame construction (called a “cigar box”). This was a quantum leap in surfboard history and development, ushering in a new era in surfing, cutting weight by as much as 20 pounds.

Besides initiating the great shift to hollow surfboards, Blake also affixed the first fin to a surfboard, which enabled greater stability and maneuverability. A direct line can be traced from the surfboards of today to these early boards created by Tom Blake. By the mid-’30s Blake’s hollow, finned boards were still heavy and sluggish by today’s standards but the momentum had begun. General board construction didn’t change again until Bob Simmons gave some curvature to the bottom of the surfboard called rocker which like a boat enabled the surfboard to flow over the surface of the ocean without catching its edges and dipping under the water. Simmons’ spoon design was the first to really utilize this concept and it soon became standard in the industry. Surfboards at this point in history were still made of balsa wood.

Foam Surfboards

As the ’40s came to a close so did the era of the wooden surfboard. By the mid-fifties, shapers were using fiberglass to seal surfboards and soon replaced wood cores with polyurethane foam. In terms of performance, this was the greatest progression since the addition of the fin. Surfers could now move their boards in ways that were not possible with the heavy wooden construction. Surfing was now open to everyone, which led to the 60’s surfing craze.

The Shortboard Revolution

Surfers were still riding boards around 10 feet long. The zenith of surfing performance was for sure the noseride. But by the late sixties, Californian kneeboarder and exotic tinkerer George Greenough was seen shredding Australian pointbreaks on a tiny board with a strange thin and flexible fin. Aussie champ Nat Young with shaper Bob McTavish collaborated with Greenough on boards with less thickness in the rail, a Vee-bottom, and with a new, thinner and a more flexible, low profile fin. The culminating surfboard “Magic Sam” is seen as a missing link between the longboard and the shortboard. Nat Young traveled to the 1966 World Championships in San Diego with Sam in hand and with his new “involvement” approach to surfing put to pasture the magical noseriding of David Nuuhiwa. His win set in motion a shift towards narrower, flexible fins and shorter, thinner boards. Boards would move closer and closer to the ridiculous (more like Greenough’s kneeboard) with surfers struggling on 4-5 foot boards until length tempered in the 70’s to an average 6-7 foot.

Surfboard Fins: the next wave

Fin development would make the next move. Many shapers were experimenting with twin fins, but not until Mark Richards was inspired by a small twin-keeled board ridden by Reno Abellira would the Twin Fin reach a significant global audience. The twin fin design was not useful in big surf. It was drifty and jittery in juice, but in small to medium surf, it was fast and loose, giving the surfer both flow and maneuverability not imagined at that point. Mark Richards rode his design to an astounding 4 world titles from 1979- 1983. By the ’80s, basic shortboards were measuring from 5-foot small wave boards to 8-foot “guns” for big surf with either 1 or 2 fins, but an Australian professional surfer and shaper, Simon Anderson, would offer another option that would prove to be the next great change in surfboard design. By adding the third fin in the center of the twin fin design, Anderson found it infused more stability and projection into the surfboard’s performance. Anderson unveiled the three fin (thruster) in 1980 and in a few short years, it had all but replaced both single and twin fins as the set-up of choice around the world.

Modern Surfboards

Surfboards today could be generally categorized as shortboards, funboards, longboards, fish, guns, and tow-boards. Following the collapse of polyurethane surfboard blank juggernaut Clark Foam in 2005, the board building community ran in search of other materials. Lighter and more “earth-friendly” materials such as bamboo and recycled foam and new super light foam have become popular. Epoxy resin has also become prominent with its light weight and added strength. Removable fins have opened options in travel and performance, while foot straps on tow-boards have taken big wave surfing to never before imagined levels.